Teri Johnson’s interest in candles was sparked in the early 2000s when she caught a whiff of a luxury candle. She was in a photographer’s studio, she recalls, where a candle from the French luxury line Diptyque was burning. “I had to have one,” she says. “It didn’t matter how much it cost.”
Within a few years, Johnson was concocting her own scented candles in her Harlem home and selling them at pop–up markets around New York City and to friends and family. In 2014, Johnson incorporated the Harlem Candle Co., leaving behind a career in management consulting and video production.
The business is self-funded and privately held. Today there are 11 scents in the collection of candles and room sprays, with names like Ellington, Josephine, and Lenox—all inspired by the Harlem Renaissance. The objects, encased in pigmented and gilded glass, range in price from $45 for the 12-oz. size to $60 for special editions.
She spoke with Bloomberg Businessweek about launching and expanding the venture.
How did you decide on Harlem Candle?
I used the Harlem Renaissance period as inspiration because I didn’t want to be just another candle company. You think of lavender and vanilla when you think of most candles, candles without connection, without a story. I wanted to celebrate the great people of the Harlem Renaissance who influenced art, music, and culture. Harlem left a mark on not only America but the world.
What is it like working with fragrance designers?
My perfumers are Swiss and Dutch. Actually, one of them is from Haarlem in the Netherlands, so he has a special connection to my brand. I am probably the smallest company they work with—they mostly work with huge companies like Estée Lauder and Givenchy. They are artists and chemists, they’re skilled at interpreting my ideas into fragrances. I can tell them a song, a genre of music, or even [ask them to] watch Josephine Baker’s La Danse Sauvage. For the Josephine candle, we talked about her time in Morocco to incorporate notes of Moroccan rose.
You created the LOVE candle for the film If Beale Street Could Talk. How did that come about?
Annapurna Pictures reached out to me to produce a candle that they could gift to the cast. I assume someone at the company had one of my candles. Many people in the Los Angeles and Hollywood area know about my candles. I also have my products in Candle Delirium, which is based in Los Angeles on Santa Monica Boulevard.
At the time James Baldwin wrote this novel, he was living in Saint-Paul-de-Vence in the Provence region of France. That’s when a big lightbulb went off. I said, “Oh my gosh, this was one of the most fragrant places in the world.” I wanted a candle and fragrance that was romantic. The quote on the glass says, “Love Brought You Here.” We had it printed in 22-karat gold, and we have vintage-looking rose vines in 22-karat gold surrounding the glass.
What does success look like to you?
Success looks like building this brand and any other brands that are offshoots of this brand. I would like to be international and have people around the world to celebrate the essence of the Harlem Renaissance. That would make me happy, and I think that would make my ancestors happy.